-- By Bob Scalise, The John D. Nichols ’53 Family Director of Athletics
Over the last several years, prospective student-athletes have been making verbal commitments to college athletic programs at increasingly earlier points in their high school careers. In 2014, The New York Times found that 31% of men’s lacrosse players and 24% of women’s soccer players who use one particular scouting service received and accepted scholarship offers well before their senior years, sometimes as early as ninth grade.
College teams are in competition for success and talent, and once coaches began to recruit high school freshmen and sophomores in order to gain a competitive edge, it created a snowball effect throughout college athletics. In today’s recruiting environment, the sooner a college coach can commit a player, the sooner that athlete comes off the market. Moreover, parents today are increasingly acting as agents in the recruiting process and marketing their children to college coaches with the goal of locking down athletic scholarships or admissions commitments. Students-athletes, experiencing pressure from both sides, feel like they must leap at the first opportunity or risk it passing them by.
This is a serious problem for student-athletes, their classmates, high schools, and the recruiting institution on many levels. Students who are too young to know what they want out of college are being asked to make an important decision about their future without taking the necessary time to mature, explore their interests, meet their athletic potential, or understand their full range of options. Additionally, the classmates of a verbally committed freshman might interpret early recruiting as adversarial to their own college application before they’ve even begun the process, creating an unhealthy high school environment. The verbal commitment itself, meanwhile, may eliminate a source of motivation for some athletes, and if their athletic skills don’t develop as expected, they may end up on the bench in college, or worse, with a retracted offer.
Evidence of the unintended consequence of early verbal commitments can be seen in the higher transfer rates among pertinent athletes. Sports Illustrated analyzed the commitment and transfer trends of the top-100 men’s basketball recruits between 2007 and 2011, and found that among players who made verbal commitments three years or more prior to entering college, 48% of them (removing one-and-done players) transferred colleges. That is not a desirable outcome for student-athletes or for coaches.
The more damaging problem with early commitments happens when a coach de-commits from the verbal agreement, which by definition is not a guarantee of a scholarship or acceptance to the institution. Coaches present a pressured situation to the athlete in asking for a commitment, but until the National Letter of Intent signing day of the athlete’s senior year, the verbal agreement is not binding. If an athlete gets injured or doesn’t perform as expected, either academically or athletically, the coach often loses interest and the athlete is left in the lurch. Conversely, however, students are reluctant to de-commit and pursue other opportunities, and the coaching world frowns upon the practice of continuing to contact a student who has already committed to another school.
The early commitment trend in certain Division I sports makes recruiting uniquely challenging for Ivy League coaches. It is an Ivy League principle that recruited student-athletes are academically representative of the student body, and our admissions offices alone make admissions decisions. Elsewhere in Division I, coaches may be able to promise roster spots to recruits with limited high school records; Ivy coaches, however, cannot. This is in keeping with a founding principle of the Ivy League: students-athletes should be admitted by the same process as all other students at our schools. In response to the pressure recruits experience earlier at other schools, Ivy coaches encourage athletes to give themselves the time to follow through with our admissions process and commit to supporting their application, but cannot offer admission. If a student decides to “commit” to an Ivy institution, it means that that school is their first choice. When a coach from an Ivy institution “commits” to a prospect, it means that the coach will support that student’s candidacy in the admissions process. Unlike their counterparts at other institutions, Ivy coaches must wait until October of the candidate’s senior year to get definitive word about an applicant’s acceptance. This notification takes place only after a student has submitted a complete application, which is reviewed by the Ivy school’s admissions staff. At Ivy schools, it is the admissions office alone that admits candidates. We feel this is the right way to recruit, and it has served our schools and students well for many years.
Though the timing of decisions in our admissions process can be a challenge, many of our student-athletes specifically credit our coaches’ recruiting philosophy as a primary reason they chose Harvard. In not asking for a commitment before she was ready to give one, one of our women’s soccer players says our coaches demonstrated a compelling strength of character. She advises all high school athletes to take a breath in the process. “If you’re good enough and schools want you enough, they’ll wait,” she says.
To their credit, coaches everywhere are openly uncomfortable with the fact that early commitments undermine the student’s opportunity to find the right fit in a college. The most decorated coach in Division I women’s soccer, Anson Dorrance of UNC, describes early recruiting as “destructive” to everyone involved, and yet he and other coaches continue to seek early commitments. There is pressure to be successful and compete at the highest level, and talent is the key to that success.
Fixing the early commitment issue will be complicated. Coaches and athletic programs operate in their own self-interest, so it is unlikely that individual coaches or Athletic Directors will self-regulate their recruiting practices without real leadership from college presidents and the NCAA. The pressure coaches exert on young students to make life-changing decisions in haste erodes their ability to make the right choice, and is therefore in direct conflict with the purpose and process of higher education. The NCAA needs to acknowledge the elephant in the room and engage in meaningful dialogue with its member institutions in order to find a workable solution to this alarming trend.